How Hamilton kept his F1 title hopes alive against the odds

The Sao Paulo Grand Prix will go down as being one of Lewis Hamilton’s greatest victories of his Formula 1 career. 
Race winner Lewis Hamilton (GBR) Mercedes AMG F1 celebrates in parc ferme.
Race winner Lewis Hamilton (GBR) Mercedes AMG F1 celebrates in parc ferme.
© FIA Pool Image for Editorial Use

Hamilton, who has turned in many astonishing drives over his 15 years in F1, elevated himself onto another level in Brazil to come out on top with an unlikely win that has reignited his world championship hopes. 

Fighting his way from 10th on the grid and passing title rival Max Verstappen to seal a crucial sixth victory of the season in Sunday’s grand prix capped off a remarkable weekend-long performance that perfectly underlined why Hamilton can never be written off, even in the most desperate of scenarios.  

Following a disqualification for a technical infringement that sent him to the back of the grid for Saturday’s sprint event after topping Friday qualifying, Hamilton’s hopes of winning a record-breaking eighth world title this year appeared to have been left hanging by a thread. 

But Hamilton drew on all his talent and experience to charge from 20th to fifth, completing 15 overtakes in just 24 laps to limit the damage and seal a top-10 starting berth for the grand prix after his engine penalty was applied.

On Sunday, the seven-time world champion continued his fine form as he efficiently picked off his rivals en route to a masterful win that has cut Verstappen’s championship advantage down to 14 points with three races remaining. 

1996 world champion Damon Hill described Hamilton’s comeback victory as “one of the best drives I’ve ever seen in F1 - by anyone”. 

Mercedes team boss Toto Wolff said he would “definitely rate that among the best ever performances I have ever seen from him.” 

Even Hamilton acknowledged: "This has been one of the best weekends, if not the best weekend, I have experienced in my whole career.”

How Hamilton kept his F1 title hopes alive against the odds

In many ways, Hamilton’s ability to perform when the chips are down comes as little surprise. After all, the 36-year-old is no stranger to facing adversity - both on and off the track.

As he proved in Brazil, it is in these challenging moments that Hamilton is able to find an extraordinary inner strength and bring out his best. 

"This year's been so difficult, really, for us,” he said. "After the [summer] break, we hoped we would be quick and we weren't. We have not really had spectacular showings.

"We had two races where we were ahead, the others we struggled. And then coming here 19 points behind, we really needed a solid result but then we had all these penalties.

"Mentally, you could think it's over, it's impossible. But nothing is impossible if you put your mind to it. That's why we cultivated a positive mental attitude and went into fighting, guns blazing.”

Hamilton revealed that a conversation with his father, Anthony, about a similar recovery drive during his Formula 3 days at the 2004 Bahrain Superprix had acted as inspiration for his Brazil fightback. 

A then 19-year-old Hamilton driving for Manor Motorsport bounced back from a mistake in qualifying to go from 21st on the grid to 11th in an eight-lap qualification race. From there, Hamilton stormed through to win the main race, securing a vital result on his pathway to F1.

“He reminded me of 2004 when I was in Formula 3 in Bahrain, I started last and I finished 10th and then I finished first,” Hamilton recalled. “So, this one’s for my dad.

"I think I started 20th in Bahrain and came 12th in the pre-final and then first in the second final. After that, McLaren re-signed me. 

“It was a good result. I was fighting for my career at the time. Without them I wouldn’t have been able to make it to Formula 1.” 

Race winner Lewis Hamilton (GBR) Mercedes AMG F1 celebrates on the podium.
Race winner Lewis Hamilton (GBR) Mercedes AMG F1 celebrates on the podium.

A perfect combination of driver talent and a fast car 

It has become a regular theme in recent years for detractors to point to the speed of Hamilton’s car as being the reason for much of his success in F1. 

Indeed, Hamilton’s Mercedes resembled something of a rocket ship with its fresh engine and straight-line speed advantage in Brazil, but that should not take away from what was fundamentally a very special performance. 

Mercedes teammate Valtteri Bottas, who had to let the faster Hamilton by just five laps into the race despite starting from pole position, admitted Hamilton was “in his own league” on Sunday. 

Hamilton, who remains the only F1 driver to win at least one race in each season he has competed, did not put a foot wrong all weekend. 

He drove intelligently in both races, positioning his car to perfection before waiting for the opportune moment to strike during each of his 20 plus overtakes, all of which were carried out with clean precision. 

Hamilton’s charge set up a thrilling late tussle with Verstappen in the hardest and most entertaining battle of the lot. At the third attempt to pass the Red Bull driver into Turn 4 - where they had nearly collided just a few laps earlier - Hamilton was finally through. 

How Hamilton kept his F1 title hopes alive against the odds

The way Hamilton set up the race-defining move on Verstappen was clever, having forced his rival to take a sub-optimal line down the Senna Esses following a subtle dummy into Turn 1. 

“Of course, Lewis, Mercedes and Red Bull have a strong car at the moment but what Lewis has shown this weekend, I think is going over what a car can give,” Ferrari driver Charles Leclerc said. 

“He has done a really impressive performance. Fair play to him to win after everything that happened to him this weekend, it is a great achievement. And I think that should be seen outside of the car performance. I think he just did a great job.” 

Teammate Carlos Sainz also had his say on the fastest car argument, adding: “I keep seeing these debates on social media and everywhere and I keep wondering why can it not be the two things. 

“I think it was the combination of a great driver, a great talented guy, that was inspired in combination with a car that this weekend was very dominant.” 

Hamilton channels spirit of Senna 

In 2008, Hamilton arrived in Sao Paulo as the enemy as he went head-to-head against home favourite Felipe Massa for the world title. 13 years later, he leaves Brazil the hero.

30 years on from Ayrton Senna’s first home win, Hamilton lofted the Brazilian flag high once more on the top step of the podium having emulated his childhood hero by winning against the odds at Interlagos. 

It was a drive Senna would have been proud of, and one that delighted a raucous Brazilian crowd that helped create a carnival atmosphere. 

Race winner Lewis Hamilton (GBR) Mercedes AMG F1 celebrates on the podium.
Race winner Lewis Hamilton (GBR) Mercedes AMG F1 celebrates on the podium.
© FIA Pool Image for Editorial Use

In taking his 101st victory, Hamilton has now incredibly matched all of the wins combined by drivers from Brazil.

Hamilton was the fans’ clear favourite in Sao Paulo, with Verstappen booed by large sections of the crowd as he stepped onto the podium, while Hamilton was met by a chorus of chants including ‘Lewis’ and ‘Senna’. 

The support did not go unnoticed by Hamilton, who has been on the receiving end of boos at most races since being backed by his home faithful at the British Grand Prix in July. 

“I’m so grateful for the incredible support I’ve had this weekend,” he said. “I’ve not had it since like Silverstone was when I had a good group of support, but since then it’s been really difficult. 

"So to hear these throughout the weekend has been really humbling. I think the fans really made a huge difference this weekend.” 

It was a fitting end to a dramatic Sao Paulo GP weekend that sets up the tantalising prospect of a finely-poised title battle heading into the season’s climax. 

Regardless of whether Hamilton goes on to win or lose this championship, he demonstrated in Brazil exactly why he deserves his place alongside the all-time greats with a legendary victory.

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